Beginning in the late 1940s and continuing for almost fifty years, my father, Reverend W. B. Seals, was one of the most recognized photographers in Buffalo’s African American community. Photography was one of three avocations in addition to his day job at the Chevy plant in Tonawanda. He was also a Baptist minister and a musician. He took up photography after our move to Buffalo in 1947, quickly moving from a hobby to a side-line business, which he named Seals Ebony Studio.
My father was born in 1910, in the state of Louisiana, under the constraints and de-humanization of the Jim Crow legal and social structure. I don’t know if he would have considered his work as a photographer a form of artistic expression, or if he’d see himself as a social documentarian, or a community historian. But he was an ultimate professional, who worked tirelessly to perfect and update his skills. He actively endeavored to learn new techniques to produce unique, beautiful black-and-white, sepia, and color photos. He was a “jack of all trades,” and early on he devised gadgets to improve lighting and filters to create special effects.
He often used members of his family as models so that he could practice improving the composition and placement of his subjects (a side benefit for us is that we have many family photos). Before color photos were affordable, he used oil-based paints to meticulously hand-paint “colorized” versions of his work. He spent countless hours at his desk with a paint palette, tubes of oils, Q-tips, and cotton swabs, and painstakingly detailed eyes, hair, cheeks, or jewelry with just the right color and shading. For many years he developed and printed the pictures he took, maintaining the negatives and the precious images they contain.
He devised a unique way to advertise. He built the “picture box”, which became a neighborhood fixture in the Fruitbelt, to showcase his work. As a businessman, he kept records that identified the names and contact information of customers and the dates of the photo shoots. The end result of his work is a decades-old collection of stunning black-and-white and color photos that record generations of African American community members and preserved images not frequently seen by members of the broader community.